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Zero to Summit in Two Months: Pivoting to Online Events

The Challenge

2020 has been one of the most challenging years for Event Organizers - and it was no different for Phil Anderson and Shelley Webb, the dynamic duo behind the annual Social Media Summit. Having held the last two events in the gorgeous Coeur d'Alene in Idaho, they were excited to be planning for their third installment in June.

As the spread of COVID-19 escalated, Phil and Shelley remained optimistic and postponed the event until September 2020, but by July it was clear that, too, was not feasible. As one of the moderators of a Facebook group called Social Media Pro, Shelley discovered that a few members had used HeySummit to run their online events.

"We needed to pivot quickly, and it looked like a great platform," says Shelley.

With only 2 months and one intern to put the event together, and 34 speaker slots to fill, it was all hands on deck.

"It actually went really well, which we were super thankful for. And that's a testament to the product," Phil adds.

Anatomy of a Summit

Despite having zero previous experience using an online event management platform, the duo took to it like ducks to water.

"We were able to really expand our event by going virtual because the simplicity of the logistics made it a little easier to do so - we had so many speakers we added a day!"

Phil explained they had planned to test various aspects of the event to ensure everything was working, but ran out of time.

"It really all only came together 10 hours before the event," he laughs.

However, he had confidence in his event, partly due to the support he received from HeySummit's dedicated Customer Happiness team.

"When you're in uncharted waters, and you've got a person on the other side to walk you through these things, it's fantastic."

Being new to online events, they found there was a bit of a learning curve, but used the Knowledge Base and instructional videos to help them through the process. When they had difficulties finding answers to their questions, Shelley went through each section of the platform and clicked through all the links, noting what could be found and edited on each page.

Finding the right voices

Having both been in the social media marketing industry for over a decade, they were able to leverage their networks to find speakers. And as volunteers at Social Media Marketing World, one of the biggest social media marketing conferences in the world, they reached out to people they met or were referred to.

They had no problems pitching their event to speakers - with an innovative live/ pre-recorded set-up, all speakers had to do was to either record a 30-40 minute presentation on their own time or present their talk live, as well as attend a live Q&A for 15 minutes each. They used the 'online' aspect to their advantage, explaining the event would get a bigger, more global reach, enabling speakers to connect with people who they'd never connected with before.

While some speakers would have preferred an in-person event, going online removed travel as a barrier to entry, which enabled them to cast a wider net and recruit speakers from all over the world, including Thailand and the Netherlands!

"People are very willing to speak. Actually, it's the lesser-known people who are not willing to speak without being paid. People who speak often know that being part of an event like this is good for everybody," Shelley muses.

Setting speakers up for success

Knowing the expertise of each speaker, Phil and Shelley gave them the freedom to choose their topic, without the need for prompts. This resulted in talks lasting between 33 to 54 minutes.

They also provided guidance to speakers in navigating the HeySummit speaker dashboard and other logistics related to the live Q&A, keeping communication channels open to answer any questions speakers' had along the way. They also tried to pre-empt any potential issues that could arise during the event. For example, with this being their first attempt at an online Q&A, the duo ensured they prepared a list of questions to 'warm up' the attendees and get the ball rolling.

In addition, they also set up their speakers as affiliates, giving out affiliate commission for any tickets speakers have sold with their referral link. Although they did not provide promotional copy this time around, that's something they're keen to do in the future - to give speakers one less thing to worry about.

"We wanted them to know that we didn't expect them to promote the event, but that there was the option to promote it and get some money back," says Phil.

"It's a really nice thing, I like that the platform offers all these options in one, which makes it easy to manage and have oversight over," Shelley adds.

Sponsors - a work in progress

In making the digital transition, Event Organizers often struggle to entice sponsors to join them, for reasons such as the lack of a physical exhibitor booth for them to interact with attendees.

Although both Phil and Shelley admit that sponsorship was never their strong point, having fallen to the wayside due to other competing priorities, Social Media Summit sponsors were offered slots to speak about their product during the conference, as well as display their logos on the landing page.

Summit Successfully: Top Tips

1. You never know until you try

One of the biggest lessons they've learned is to reconsider their pricing model. With tickets having already been sold for the regular, offline version of the conference, they were not able to lower ticket prices for the online conference.

"Going forward, we'll probably use the model where everyone gets a ticket for free and then they can choose to upgrade their ticket for extra perks like access to the recordings," Phil shared.

2. Prioritize marketing to draw attendees

Phil admits that, as it was their first time going virtual, marketing did not go entirely according to plan either.

"The goal really is to give businesses information that they can use for social media management. We had great speakers, and offered really great information," he continues.

Relying mostly on their content to do the talking, the two spent more time on the event set-up rather than advertising. In focusing on content, the pair was confident in the quality of talks offered, and attendees have been quick to praise their event, which focuses on social media strategies for small businesses. Following the good feedback, there are plans to expand Social Media Summit to include small business strategies in future iterations.

3. Know your tech

One of the biggest challenges was getting used to the tech stack they'd built for their summit. They used Zoom to host live talks and Vimeo for their pre-recorded talks. Having discovered the ability to clone their summit directly on HeySummit a little too late, they were unable to hold a full dry run. Luckily, Phil attended the entire event, ready to troubleshoot any technical difficulties.

"On the first day, within the first four hours, we had a pre-recorded talk, a live Q&A and a live talk - so it was all systems go. I had my iPad and laptops all laid out!" Phil recalls.

"As we were doing one of the live Q&As, I checked on the next session and an error message popped up: video not found. I realized I'd put the wrong video ID! I managed to get the right one - all this happened within two minutes!"

4. Customization is key

With so many online events these days, it's important to stand out and have your event page reflect your brand. Therefore, customizable landing pages were something the team appreciated.

"The ability to change your homepage around - that I could move my sponsors lower down the page, or put testimonials higher, depending on what I wanted people to see, that was great," says Phil.

This flexibility also came in handy when a couple of speakers they'd approached went AWOL after agreeing to speak at the event, and then they turned up right before the conference. Phil and Shelley were able to just plug them into the summit without a hassle.

"Plus, if we have future events, it'll be easier because we can clone our summit and customize it from there. I think that being able to store all your event information on one platform is really beneficial for people who are doing multiple summits throughout the year."

5. Give your attendees a break

With three 10-hour days and one six-hour day, it was a tight schedule. Speakers were scheduled on the hour without any breaks. This was something the duo warn against and are keen to change for future events.

The lack of breaks contributed to many attendees dropping out of the last few sessions since there was the option to catch the replays at their leisure. This led to a drop in morale for some speakers who had carved out time to show up live to deliver their talks.

Full confidence in online summits

What's next on the horizon for the team? Will it be a full shift to online events?

With one online summit already under their belt, Phil and Shelley plan to repurpose the content for future coaching calls. While they still hope to host in-person conferences in the future, they're feeling positive about adding online events to their calendar.

They especially love the fact that an online event really allows attendees to pay full attention to the speaker and be in the moment. Whilst note-taking and screenshots are a common fixture at in-person events, online ones grant attendees the ability to hit pause, rewind, and even watch it over again.

"Right now, people are 'Zoomed out', but once everything gets back to normal again, and people are out in public again, I think online events will still be going strong, now that people know it's such an easy and convenient way to both deliver and receive information and knowledge."

Their final words of advice for those looking to branch out into online events?

"I would say go for it. But have a well-thought-out plan!" Phil smiles.

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